Details were sketchy, but after a first look Whatcom County Council members liked the Forestry Advisory Committee's list of ways to assure "no net loss" of working forest.
County officials need to get away from protecting the forest just for the trees' sake, the committee says. The focus should be on preserving timber harvesting, and the jobs and money it brings into the county.
"I would like to endorse for the most part the initial step coming from the Forestry Advisory Committee ... to try to save an industry that has been in decline for years," council member Pete Kremen said during a discussion of the committee's proposal on Tuesday, July 22.
Council created the 11-member committee last year, partly in response to the timber industry's frustration over a swap of 8,844 acres of timber land from the state to the county for use as a park.
Most of the forest lands available for harvest 20 years ago are now off-limits, mostly as a result of a President Bill Clinton-era action that removed federally owned forests from production.
About 155,340 acres remain in the county for timber, the committee said - down from about 431,500 two decades ago.
The forestry committee wants to get the same consideration the council has shown to farmers in recent years. In 2009, the council passed a resolution recognizing that 100,000 acres of farmland was needed to make that industry viable in the county.
Foresters don't cite a similar minimum acreage for their industry.
"We don't know what that number is, but we know that we're going in the wrong direction and have been for quite some time," committee member Aubrey Stargell told the council Tuesday.
The committee's proposal hinges on nine points laid out at the end of its July 22 memo to County Council members, who said on Tuesday they needed to hear more about the ideas. The committee wasn't prepared to present a more detailed plan.
"The committee will go back to work on trying to develop more detail," committee member Gerry Millman told the council. "We didn't want to put forth this very lengthy, involved thing at first, but we're certainly willing to do that."
Stargell did say a few things about one key point: "mitigation for loss of forest lands from productivity." This is the heart of the "no net loss" proposal.
Stargell said residential development is not the primary cause of the shrinking land base.
"Those removals pale in the numbers, in comparison to removals for preservation," Stargell said.
"Right now, there's no skin in the game on the part of the park advocates," he said. "They always want more and more parks because there's no trade-off for them."
Stargell proposed an even swap of park or conservation land for any working timber land taken out of production for environmental reasons.
Whatcom Land Trust board member Rand Jack said the advisory committee's goals were laudable, but said the devil was in the details.
The Land Trust has been involved in several high-profile land deals with the county, including last year's 8,844-acre transfer, or reconveyance, of state land in Lake Whatcom watershed to the county.
"To make that kind of blanket policy creates enormous problems," Jack said. "What does that mean for instance for (Bellingham's) purchase of land in the Lake Whatcom watershed?"
"The fact is that governmental entities need to be free to make decisions that certain uses might have priority over other uses," Jack said.
Council will consider a more thorough forestry committee proposal as part of the 2016 update to the county's major 20-year planning document, called the comprehensive plan, said county long-range planner Mark Personius.
Reach Ralph Schwartz at firstname.lastname@example.org or 360-715-2289. Read his Politics blog at bellinghamherald.com/politics-blog or get updates on Twitter at @bhampolitics.